It IS What You Say, AND How You Say It: Four Tips for Providers Communicating With Male Patients

Men Facing Their Fears

It’s the gender twist to the old saying “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

When it comes to health, men* often are cast in the role of the horse, with “water” being played by any of the health care providers he needs to see when “dehydration” (illness or injury) sets in.

I recently had my own experience with this when my husband was diagnosed with ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis. He spent three miserable days with a fever, chills and fatigue before he even considered calling the doctor. It was the classic and highly caricaturized “man-healthcare” scenario, with excuses including:

Once all of my husband’s “yeah, buts” were addressed, thankfully, he went to see the doctor. He received the treatment he needed and is on the road to recovery. But the difficulty in getting him, and apparently lots of other men, to the clinic and engaged in their health care, is a common theme. This 2004 cartoon makes fun of a more serious issue – men’s reluctance to acknowledge their own sickness and take steps to see a health professional.

Not the Doctor

This 2015 Trends in Men’s Health article looked at this in depth. In this piece, the research suggested that men don’t want to be seen as “patients” and the greatest dissatisfaction men have with their health care treatment is how the disease and treatment will affect their lives outside the hospital.

From this, we can discern that a primary driver for men facing a health care crisis or treatment is to maintain the identity they had before the illness or disease. And using that insight, four tips for communicating to men about their health emerge:

  1. Minimize language that places men in the role of the patient – men do not what to be perceived as patients or being “sick” they see that as a form of “pity”. In this ad from UVA, the focus is about maintaining his pre-disease lifestyle and the image shows life on his terms.UVA Ad
  2. Use language that allows the man to be in control of the conversation – because most men don’t want to be seen as a patient, where things happen “to them”, giving him control of how and when to communicate makes him, more likely to engage and stay engaged in his health. In this ad from UPMC, the man is seen as a warrior and survivor, in charge of his own destiny.UPMC Ad
  3. Focus oProstate Infon getting or sharing concrete, objective, quantitative communication – turns out, men aren’t super fond of talking about their feelings, and that includes how their health condition is making them feel. Asking questions or providing information that answers the “what”, “when”, “how much”, and “how many times”, may allow men to start talking about how their condition or illness is making them feel.
  4. Use shorter more frequent communication bursts – we have learned that men prefer health care communication in shorter (length and duration) formats but with a greater frequency. It provides time for men to process, and with enough time they may start sharing more or they may choose to stay quiet (and that is okay). In this infographic, men receive “news they can use” in information “sound bites” men and their caregivers can remember.

On first blush, these tips seem gender-neutral. I’m a woman and I want to be seen as a warrior too. But the research suggests that men interact with health care providers differently.  Maybe it’s less about “communicating to men” and more about knowing your audience, or “gender sensitivity” which John Hopkins Center for Communication Programs defines as:

“The recognition that socially determined differences between women and men often led to inequities in their respective access to and control of resources. Gender sensitivity includes willingness to address these inequities through strategies and actions for social change and economic development. It also includes awareness of differences between women’s and men’s needs, roles, responsibilities and constraints.”

As the mother of three boys, I just need providers to help the men in my life get engaged and stay engaged in their health care.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs defines sex and gender as follows:

Using these definitions, this piece is about communicating to men as a result of one’s gender identity versus one’s sex.

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